The 51st Venice Biennale, June 12-Oct. 8, 2005, is the first in 110 years to be overseen by women -- Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez, two Spanish curators -- and the gods have kindly provided dazzling blue skies and perfect spring weather for the vernissage weekend.
De Corral and Martinez have somehow managed to quiet the macho spirit that often seems so integral to such global art gatherings. In its place, we have cheerful triumph of "festivalism," to use the term for the prevailing esthetic at such international art shows, popularized a few years ago (as an epithet) by New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl.
"Festivalism" requires large set pieces from its participating artists, scaled-up avant-garde gestures that, despite their ambitious size, can be taken in with a glance. Such gestures are the norm throughout Venice this year, permeating each of the four distinct parts of the biennale -- the assorted national pavilions in the Giardini, the show de Corral has curated at the Italian Pavilion, Martinez's exhibition for the Arsenale, and the assorted off-site events that jockey for visitors' attention throughout the city.
In the Giardini, Ed Ruscha holds down the fort at the U.S. pavilion, a symmetrical white structure, the simple, layout of which is inspired by Thomas Jefferson's design for Monticello. Ruscha has provided a total of 10 paintings, five in each wing, each measuring about four by ten feet, for a show he calls "Course of Empire," after Thomas Cole's Cassandra-like series, long housed at the New York Historical Society.
One of the two groups of Ruscha's works on display, the "Blue Collar" series, was painted in 1992 and depicts boxy buildings set against bleak skies, each crowned with a simple sign announcing the business within -- "Tool & Die," "Trade School," "Tires," and so on. The works have a certain gravitas, and reflect Ruscha's oft-stated respect for the salt of the earth.
The second set of paintings, which depict the same buildings, are done in color and date from the last few years. The skies are smoggy aqua or filled with clouds that glow apocalyptic red. The trade school is shut behind a chain-link fence, the tire store has been modernized and is expanding, and the tool & die works now bears Asian calligraphy -- as well as a string of urban graffiti. Though only a dozen years have passed, everything has changed.
The U.S. pavilion speaks with authority and power. Moving away from it, one passes up the hill to where the triumvirate of pavilions belonging to the powers of Old Europe sits -- the British, flanked by the German and the French. There, Gilbert & George were graciously signing catalogues for all comers. Inside the British pavilion, a series of huge new photographs featured the leaf of New York's native gingko tree as motif.
For the most part, the gentlemen from London have abandoned their previous obsessions with bodily fluids in favor of a more recondite, even Neo-Gothic symbolism (though their hallmark gingko leaf did attract them because it smells like shit, G&G helpfully explained to an interviewer from Modern Painters). The works look like stained glass and, overall, the British pavilion suggests a chapel -- for makers of mural-sized images, the "festivalist" model is apparently the Rothko Chapel in Houston.
Meanwhile, next door at the French pavilion, the veteran French sculptor Annette Messager has adopted a slightly different model, darkening the rooms to create something of a haunted house. The forlorn figure of a marionette can be made out in the gloom, cast at the foot of a heap of stuffed bolsters, all bound together with black cords. In the central gallery, a huge black mesh net hangs from the ceiling, quietly holding a group of ominous stuffed objects -- until, with a startling snap, the net jerks up and tosses the objects into the air.
Across the way at the German pavilion, among a festive collection of colorful abstract sculptures and paintings by Thomas Scheibitz, actors dressed as guards in white shirts and black pants by the young artist Tino Seghal (b. 1976) greet the visitors, dancing gaily as they sing out, "Oh, this is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary." In an empty side gallery, the "host-guards" solicit the opinions of visitors on the topic of "the market economy." For providing this, one is compensated (from a stand at the entrance to the Giardini) -- half of the price of admission, or €3.75.
The ostensibly empty gallery -- arguably the ultimate in avant-garde gestures -- was to be found elsewhere at the biennale as well. The Stockholm-based artists Miriam Bäckström and Carsten Höller filled the dramatically modernist architecture of the Nordic pavilion -- a large, low space that is essentially open on two sides -- with live sound (namely, wind and bird song) piped in from the trees above.
Similarly empty was the Romanian pavilion, which artist Daniel Knorr had left looking a bit shabby, that is, just as he found it: gray walls marked with traces of the previous installation. Knorr has been making "invisible" artworks since 2001, and here the gesture, titled European Influenza, supposedly reflects on the process of European unification.
The work "exists as oral information and narration," says Knorr, and the presentation is accompanied by a thick paperback catalogue of more than 800 pages, filled with small-print essays on Eastern Bloc nationalism by more than two dozen authors (no index, though the texts are arranged alphabetically).
Still other national pavilions have been remade with installations that substitute the art gallery setting for something else. At the Spanish pavilion, as part of his ongoing project "On Translation," the New York-based artist Muntadas has made a replica of a waiting room, with rows of seats, light boxes on the walls and a television broadcasting a scroll of data. This very ordinary interior space, common to airports and bus stations, is curiously stateless and transitional. The work is wittily titled I Giardini.
Even more dramatic are the artists who transform their national pavilions both inside and out. The compact Icelandic pavilion is covered with roots on the outside and on the inside turned into a multimedia cave-woman's lair by Gabríela Fridriksdóttir, who takes the kind of sloppy costume drama that artists like Paul McCarthy treat as a joke but gives it the carnality it deserves.
A different type of mania was required of Hans Schabus, the Austrian artist who converted his country's pavilion into a towering gray model of the Matterhorn -- a wooden armature covered with tarpaper, rising to three times the building's normal height. Art lovers queued up to enter the work, clambering all the way up to the top and sticking their heads out a porthole for a view of the Venice skyline.
Still another avant-garde gesture finds a home at the Canadian pavilion, where artist Rebecca Belmore projects a short film loop (which includes images of a figure wrestling in the shadows with some kind of creature, a fire floating on the water, and a figure throwing a bucket of blood at the camera) onto an actual waterfall.
And, in the Israeli pavilion, artist Guy Ben Ner is screening a droll "instructional video" on how to construct a strange-looking "tree" out of the disassembled parts of a wooden rocker, a wooden umbrella, a wooden table and a wooden bed. Also on hand is the tree construction itself.
Not all the national pavilions resort to large-scale undertakings, of course. Several feature group exhibitions. One outstanding work at the Danish pavilion (which features five artists) is the short video projection by Eva Koch titled Approach. A chorus of 14 translators, men and women, casually dressed in different outfits but all in gray, sings in unison the words to the first canto of Dante's Paradisio.
Koch's camera pans and zooms with all the drama appropriate to the text. The "deaf choir" also signs with eagerness and intensity. On the soundtrack a man's voice recites the text in English. "The glory of the One who moves all things permeates the universe and glows in one part more and in another less," he begins, a line that shines with a lyricism that is rather too-perfect for any mixed art show.
Running contrary to all the talk of large-scale gestures is a work in the South Korean pavilion by Ham Jim (b. 1978), which, despite its diminutive size, is proving to be quite popular. Outside, on a small porch, under several overturned drinking glasses that have been glued to the porch railing, are scenes of tiny humanoid creatures -- so tiny, in fact, that magnifying glasses are provided.
The creatures -- they resemble Disney's cartoon Jiminy Cricket, except that they're not green and they don't wear spats and a top hat -- set up a picnic on a leaf, or ride bareback on a captured fly, or are led on a leash by an ant, or burrow out of their glass prisons in a diminutive imitation of The Great Escape. The artist has also made photographic versions of an ant-sized Pieta. The work is lighthearted, entertaining and decidedly un-macho.
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In addition to the national pavilions in the Giardini, there are the two exhibitions organized by the biennale's designated curators. It's easy to find reflections of women's interests, whatever they are, in these shows assembled by women. The exhibition organized by Maria de Corral, "The Experience of Art," housed in the 34 white rooms of the Italian pavilion and featuring works by 42 artists, provides evidence of this right out front: On the outside of the Italian pavilion itself -- the most prominent position in the show -- is a vigorous mural by the American artist Barbara Kruger.
The overtones of Kruger's piece for the biennale are bracingly political -- "poteri" and "soldi," "power" and "money," it says in italic capital letters on the pavilion's four columns. "God is on our side" and "Pretend things are going as planned," read the commands on the pavilion's white faade. Though Kruger's signature "direct address" is arguably without gender, it also implicitly claims for women a progressive social activism.
Inside, much more is going on than works about gender, of course. The Italian pavilion hosts most of the painting that made it into this year's biennale, with rooms devoted to works by Francis Bacon, Marlene Dumas, Bernard Frize, Philip Guston, Antoni Tpies, Juan Usl and a new 2005 series of Gabriel Orozco's Invariant Diagram 4 (Samarai's Tree) paintings, the Mexican artist's oddly attractive rectilinear patterns of circles, here done in the market-friendly colors of red, blue and gold.
Other standout works here are the slide animations of Robin Rhode, "flat-bed picture plane" photos of children posing on a playground on chalk drawings, acting as if they were losing their books as they fly off a bicycle, or riding a seesaw.
De Corral has also made certain to divide the galleries equally between large installation set pieces and video installations. Miróslaw Balka crafted a large concrete passageway with four fans set in its ceiling, reminding artist Mark Kostabi (on hand at the vernissage as an official Artnet Magazine correspondent) of the unseasonably hot temperatures that greeted the 50th biennale in 2003. Balka's participatory sculpture is doubtless more popular when the mercury rises above 75 degrees.
Another set piece in one of the galleries of the Italian pavilion is Still Song (2005) by Argentina's Jorge Maachi (b. 1963), who hangs a disco ball in the center of the ceiling of the gallery. The ball sits there still and unmoving, as if dead, while around the walls of the room and on the gray floor, where the flashes of light from the mirrors might be, there are instead gouges and holes. The name of the piece may reference stillness, but its invocation of "disco terror" is loud and clear.
More bucolic are the video installations of Perejaume, who shows a group of live, grazing antelope and deer with a replica of Courbet's autograph signature in the lower right hand corner. Still another amusing entry is the room of films by the South African animator William Kentridge. These black-and-white animations are warm and charming, with a piano soundtrack, and have the feel of early films by Melis and comedies by Buster Keaton.
In jerky stop-action -- many of the movies are running backwards -- Kentridge draws (in reverse) with a feather duster, or by using an egg beater in a cup full of ink, or screws an espresso cup into his eye like a monocle and peers out into one of his own charcoal landscapes. Interestingly, de Corral has given Kentridge the large, mezannine-level gallery reserved for Cy Twombly's epic Lepanto series of paintings in the 2003 biennale, thus granting him pride of place as the show's master.
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The beautifully raw pre-industrial spaces of the Arsenale are an especially good setting for contemporary art, and curator Rosa Martinez has allowed the 49 artists in her own show, "Always a Little Further," to have as much room as they need to stretch out and show their stuff. Like de Corral, she begins with politics, as if to assert that it is of primary importance, giving the first gallery to a series of new, extra large posters by the Guerrilla Girls.
Despite their relative prominence in the biennale (and certainly in the top levels of today's contemporary art world), women remain woefully underrepresented in the Italian art world according to the statistics marshaled by the Guerrilla Girls. More irresistible is the Guerrilla Girls parody of the now-discarded system of color alerts used by the Bush Administration to measure "terror threats." The "U.S. Homeland Alert System for Women" ranges from bright red, or severe ("President claims women do have rights, can join army, fight unprovoked war, kill innocent people"), to yellow, or elevated ("President's economic policies result in largest job losses for women in 40 years"), and green, or low ("President rides around on horse, clears brush on ranch"). Kick-ass.
Other works in the Arsenale can be read as delightful send-ups of masculine obsessions. A gigantic chandelier-shaped structure -- or is it a dress, since it's titled The Bride? -- hangs from the ceiling, courtesy the Paris-based artist Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971). It's a latticework of snowy white, and made out of mini-tampons.
A man sits reading a newspaper on top of a lifesize hippopotamus made out of mud, courtesy Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, a pair of artists who hail from Philadelphia and Cuba, respectively. The performer playing the man in the installation doesn't respond to visitors, though he does regularly blow a whistle.
One corner of the Arsenale show contains a large assortment of stainless steel cookware, displayed on a series of shelves. Titled Curry (2005), the piece is by the Indian artist Subodh Gupta (b. 1964), and refers (apparently) to the fact that most of this ostensibly "American" cookware is, in fact, manufactured in India. The installation is not unlike accumulations done by Arman several decades ago -- though perhaps in his case the installation didn't carry quite the same gender associations, not to mention economic ones.
Perhaps most comic is Rivane Neuenschwander's [. . .] (2004), a bright green room set up with seven typewriter stations and a profusion of typing paper. In a parody of office work -- or perhaps of a participatory public project -- visitors have already availed themselves of the machines, typing up messages that they've then pinned to the walls. Except that the machines are rigged to type only periods, so that the results on the printed page are uniformly a kind of gagging glossolalia. Speaking in tongues, "yada yada yada"-style. A perfect image of "festivalism" at its best.
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Finally, after the official sections of the Venice Biennale, there remains the fourth "section": the many ancillary exhibitions off site. This year more than 70 countries are participating in the events -- a record number -- and 40 of them have their exhibitions at different sites throughout the city, outside the festival grounds. As usual, other artists and organizations have taken the opportunity of the biennale to present independent events too.
By the entrance to the Giardini, for instance, is a work by the young Italian artist Stefano Scheda called Fuoridento (Inside-outside) -- a beautiful two-story Renaissance building the windows and doors of which have been covered with mirrors (thank you, Giovanni Anselmo!).
Nearby, tethered to the rialto, is the WPS1 boat, an elegantly imposing tub that is part radio station, part lounge. For the biennale, WPS1 is giving out free transistor radios (shaped like silver bottle caps) and broadcasting round-the-clock art radio on a local station.
On the Piazza della S. Maria Formosa, not far from San Marco, the English artist Peter Liversidge was handing out free ice creams, courtesy of our friends at Modern Painters magazine. Liversidge, who signed and dated the ice cream cups on their undersides, has given out hot dogs in London and gin in Liverpool. Free food is a great signature motif for an artist, almost as good as the nude.
He was at his post to take advantage of an opening at the Palazzo Querini Stampalia, a 16th-century Venetian palazzo that features Renaissance paintings in the ornate period rooms of its second floor and contemporary art in shapely third-floor galleries renovated by Carlo Scarpa. There, you could find Homespun Tales, a major installation by the art world's own female Aesop, Kiki Smith, who has converted the seven galleries back into a domestic environment that is part Renaissance mythology, part Colonial folk art.
Smith has decorated the space with her own hand-painted furniture and stoneware, stenciled the walls and, most importantly, added dozens and dozens of female figures in bronze, several lifesize, alongside many more that are the size of sprites or fairies, done in white porcelain. Some are based on the women in the Pietro Longhi paintings on the second floor, given their own life by Smith; others illustrate Smith's unique interpretations of fables and folktales -- particularly Little Red Riding Hood, who is shown here in erotic congress with the wolf.
During the opening, the Native American artist James Luna set up downstairs in the garden, where he did a kind of hybrid ber-Indian dance to piped-in music that was more Mission Impossible than tom-toms. Shaking rattles and brass bells, wearing a headband, loincloth, eagle features, moccasins, a bead cape, carrying arrows or a rifle -- and wearing Raybans -- Luna moved sedately in a circle, the four compass points marked by arrows and cans of Spam. People had brought offerings and put them on a brightly synthetic Indian blanket -- a bowl of acorns, squash, beans, a can of corn, a copy of Teepee magazine, coins and dollar bills.
Luna's performance seemed to be as much about posing for pictures as it was about the Great Spirit. Is this a spiritual practice, or what? "He's all Indian all the time," said Nasher Museum curator Kathleen Goncharov. "I've always thought he was hilarious." Inside, Luna has also made a kind of Indian chapel, Christian in its design of pews and altar but Native American in its ritual objects -- in a case on one side, for instance, is a comically hybrid object, a ball-peen hammer made up with rawhide and carvings like a tomahawk. Somehow, it's just right.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.